Finding the answers to tough animal welfare questions

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Janice Siegford is using wireless sensors to remotely monitor the health and well-being of chickens. (view larger image)

An AgBioResearch scientist working with other animal science researchers and engineers is spearheading projects that use wireless sensors to remotely monitor the health and well-being of egg-laying chickens in non-cage housing systems. The studies are centered on how chickens use space and resources such as nesting boxes and perches when their movement is not restricted by cages.

AgBioResearch scientist Janice Siegford, the lead investigator of the research team, explains that the sensors will allow researchers to track individual birds and determine what behaviors they are expressing so that decisions will not be based on the activities of the group.

“How can I follow one bird visually if she is housed in a flock with hundreds or thousands of other birds? I really can’t do it,” said Siegford, who is an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Animal Science. “If we want to know what’s going on and guarantee that what we’re doing is in the bird’s best interest, we have to know at the level of the bird, not just the level of the group.

“If we’re pushing to change housing systems for hens to enriched cages or open aviaries for reasons of animal welfare but we can’t monitor birds at the individual level,” she continued, “we’re making decisions before we know how the individual birds are affected. Our decisions may have negative consequences.”

The sensor, which weighs less than 1 ounce, is mounted on the chicken’s back. It tracks the hen’s activity, from her movement with respect to other hens to roosting to eating or drinking to laying an egg or using a nesting box. The data will serve as a scientific basis for determining the resources and space allocations that chickens need and can be used to design non-cage systems for laying hens that provide the best possible welfare for the animals.

 “Having hens live in a non-cage environment may seem to be the perfectly natural setting, but if a non-cage system is poorly designed, it can lead to health problems, feather pecking and cannibalism – all natural behaviors in hens,” Siegford said. “For us to be able to design non-cage systems that really benefit or improve life for these birds, we must first understand how these housing systems affect their behavior and health on an individual basis.”

The research team is still perfecting sensor programming and adapting the technology for use in commercial settings. In the coming years, the team will test sensors in a variety of aviary and enriched cage systems in both research and commercial settings to see how hens behave and fare in the various systems.

Some of the research results were published in the September/October 2010 issue of Transactions of the ASABE (American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers). The team has shown that the sensors are accurate at detecting the physical location of the hens and that the information can be used to determine where hens spend their time, how the group of hens is distributed through the available space, if there is a circadian rhythm to their behavior and whether access to resources may be limited due to crowding or the presence of dominant hens.

“Our assessments are not production – or economic – driven but bird-driven,” she said. “It’s great if consumers and producers can use the information we develop, but our real hope is that the birds can benefit because we’ve acquired a true understanding of hen behavior and where problems exist, and how they can be corrected.”

For more information on MSU other research activities, educational programming and course offerings related to the impact management and environment has on animal behavior and animal welfare, visit


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